Maryland’s spending panel awarded more than $8.7 million Wednesday to three recently exonerated men who spent more than 100 combined years in prison.
The Board of Public Works voted unanimously to pay about $2.9 million each to Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart Jr. and Ransom Watkins, who were formally cleared last year of the notorious 1983 murder of a Baltimore junior high school student over a Georgetown University basketball jacket.
“All of them experienced unimaginable pain while they were incarcerated,” said Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who chairs the three-member board. Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, another board member, called the men “victims of a broken criminal justice system.”
“Mr. Watkins, Chestnut and Stewart deserve our sincere apologies,” said Democratic Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. “They say the mills of justice grind slowly, but this is extraordinarily slowly.”
The decision comes after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat, said Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins are innocent of a 37-year-old murder of DeWitt Duckett. The ninth grader at Harlem Park Junior High School was shot in his neck inside the West Baltimore school.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office now says that Detective Donald Kincaid and prosecutor Jonathan Shoup in 1983 coached the testimony of four students who identified Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins as the killers ― and the students later recanted that testimony. Baltimore prosecutors now say police discounted interviews from other students who identified another person as the killer.
The men did not appear before the board Wednesday to speak, but made public comments when they were released from prison in November.
“It wasn’t easy. You see us out here now. We’re smiling, but we’ve got a lot to fix,” Watkins said at the time. “This should have never happened to the kid. Us three should have never happened.
"Somebody else got to pay for this when they do this. People are still suffering. Those people in high positions they got to pay for stuff when they do it like this.”
Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation ― sponsored by Baltimore County Sen. Delores G. Kelley and Montgomery County Rep. Kathleen M. Dumais, both Democrats ― that would require the Board of Public Works to pay wrongfully convicted prisoners within 60 days after receiving an order from an administrative law judge. It would require the board to award a payment equal to the five-year average of the state’s median household income for each year of imprisonment.
Current law authorizes, but does not require, the board to make such payments to exonerated individuals whom prosecutors or a judge have certified as innocent.
Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins are the latest prisoners exonerated by a partnership between Mosby’s conviction integrity unit and two nonprofit innocence projects. The payments to the men will be made over seven years, with each receiving $35,140 within 30 days of the board’s approval.
Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins each served 12,964 days in prison — more than 35 years apiece — before Baltimore prosecutors granted them writs of actual innocence. They each will receive $81,868 per year of imprisonment, the five-year average of the state’s median household income, with $10,616 for mental health and financial counseling services.
Before receiving the payments, the men have to sign a release form indicating they will not sue the state, according to board documents. The release does not block the men from suing the Baltimore Police Department.
The state payouts are the latest in a series of moves from the Board of Public Works to compensate exonerated prisoners for their years behind bars.
Before last year, it had been 15 years since the Board of Public Works used its legal authority to pay wrongfully imprisoned people.
In November, when Stewart was released from prison, he recalled the emotional moment when he received the news he’d been cleared.
“I sat on my bunk when I got the information and I cried,” Stewart said. “I didn’t know how to stop crying until a friend of mine came to me, hugged me and said, ‘Your journey is coming to an end.’ But it’s not. My journey is just beginning."